Black Maternal Health Crisis: America is Failing to Protect Expecting Black Moms
The decorated track star Tori Bowie captured a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, two gold medals in the 2017 World Track Championships, and was the fastest woman alive at one point. At age 32, Tori Bowie died at home during childbirth on May 2, 2023, while suffering from eclampsia. Despite her supernatural-like talent, Tori fell victim to the systemic issue of Black maternal mortality rates. If Olympian Tori Bowie can suffer from this health crisis, then every Black woman is at risk.
The birth of a child is supposed to be a joyous time fueled by the anticipation of new life and beginnings; however, the reality for expecting Black women is that pregnancy is about three more times likely to lead to death than for non-Hispanic White women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Black maternal mortality rate is 69.9 deaths per 100,000, while the White maternal mortality rate is 26.6 per 100,000. Black women who die from childbirth complications are more than just a demographic; each mother lost is a person plagued by the gap in America’s healthcare system. It is unacceptable for the nation’s healthcare system to ignore the needs of pregnant Black women. The issue of higher maternal mortality rates among Black women is especially troubling because even though America is a developed nation, the mortality rate for Black mothers stands on par with that of a developing country. Furthermore, America harbors the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, higher than France, The United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and other developed countries.
Of the 517,899 Black women who gave birth in 2021, 362 did not live to see another day, just like Tori Bowie. America has for too long refused to see and address the Black maternal mortality crisis, and change needs to be made. Several factors contribute to the staggering mortality rate among Black women with the most prominent being unconscious bias and lack of funding in government programs to help expecting mothers.
Unconscious bias comes from existing systemic racial stereotypes towards Black patients. It is documented that physicians are less likely to prescribe pain medication for Black patients than White patients. Thus, this bias influences how doctors approach treating Black women.
Due to racial bias in pain, many expecting Black mothers express that they are often dismissed when they raise concerns to their health care providers. One of the most substantial ways to curb mortality rates is the early detection of maternal warning signs such as belly pain, abnormal baby movement, swelling, fevers, and more. Consequently, doctors dismissing the voices of pregnant Black women contributes to the loss of detection of maternal signs that can prevent maternal mortality.
When 80 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, there is no justification for the extreme number of Black maternal mortality rates. This issue is well within the American healthcare system’s control, and amplifying Black maternal voices can make a difference.
There are viable ways to address this health crisis at the congressional level, and a prime example of this is the Black Maternal Health Caucus. In 2019, the Black Maternal Health Caucus was founded by Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Lauren Underwood (D-IL) to raise concerns about the Black maternal health crisis in Congress and implement legislation that works toward an effective solution.
A government program that can lower the maternal mortality rate is Title V. The funding of this relief program aims to improve the overall health of mothers, infants, and children. Under Title V, programs like the Maternal & Child Health Block Grant help achieve health security among women and their children. The administrators of the block grant are the Health Resources & Services Administration, and they focus on providing “access to prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care to women, especially pregnant women who are low income and at-risk.” This program is not specific to Black mothers. Still, the program helps mitigate the health risk commonly associated with Black mothers. Beyond health care access, understanding is needed for expecting Black moms to help diminish the remains of stigmas around Black health care. Nonetheless, programs like this are a step in the right direction in listening to the needs of Black moms.
The Maternal & Child Health Block Grant has been cut by 11.3 percent from FY 2010 to FY 2023 when adjusted for inflation. The House Appropriations Committee is proposing to cut these maternal and child health programs by $35 million in FY 2024 (down to $781 million). This is a misstep for Congress because it is important to provide services to women that need them, especially Black women who are suffering the most from maternal mortality rates in this country. How many more Black mothers have to die before we decide to take action? Congress must prioritize maternal health by increasing the Maternal & Child Health Block Grant funding and ensuring that more women with low incomes get Medicaid coverage.